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Violence in Iraq and the debate over continued U.S. engagement have overshadowed one of the world’s largest humanitarian crises. Since 2006, sectarian fighting, political and criminal violence, lack of basic services, loss of livelihoods, spiraling inflation and uncertainty about the future pushed more than four million Iraqis from their homes, and made another four million dependent on assistance. Neighboring countries, which accepted more than two million refugees, now impose harsher visa restrictions, creating a “pressure-cooker” situation.
Although images of Iraqis streaming across the border have ceased to command media attention, those rendered homeless by the war are often unable to return safely to their homes yet are running out of resources abroad. Indeed, the Iraq war has caused the largest population displacement in the Middle East since 1948. Iraqis who fled to neighboring countries face tremendous uncertainties, including the threat of deportation. None of these host countries are a full signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention, and thus are not obligated to accord to the rights outlined in the convention. Refugees have limited access to basic health services and education and cannot work legally.
Of the possible outcomes to this displacement crisis, a safe return home is most preferred, yet this return must be accompanied by peaceful conditions. The recent flow of Iraqis home is a promising sign, but there may be other factors besides improved security at play here. Interviews with Iraqi refugees seem to suggest that financial incentives by the Iraqi government, alongside free bus and plane rides, play a role. Other refugees add that they have no alternative because their money is running out, their visas have expired, or their living conditions are poor. That means the safe return of Iraq’s estimated 4 million refugees still rests on a steadily improving security situation that results in the peaceful resolution of Iraq’s multiple sectarian conflicts.
While the humanitarian crisis in Iraq will only be resolved through diplomatic efforts to achieve a sustainable peaceful settlement of Iraq’s internal conflicts, much work is left undone that can immediately ameliorate the situation. And efforts are underway in Congress. In early February President Bush signed into law H.R.4986, the Department of Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2008. The bill, sponsored by Senators Edward Kennedy (D-MA), Gordon Smith (R-OR), Carl Levin (D-MI), and Sam Brownback (R-KS) includes language on the protection and resettlement of Iraqi refugees. This type of support is sorely needed.
Last year, the United States resettled only 1,608 Iraqi refugees. The United States has announced it will resettle 12,000 Iraqis in fiscal year 2008, too few in the eyes of many. Instead, we should be leading by example, following a long-held tradition of welcoming refugees to this country. In the post-Vietnam War era, more than 130,000 people were resettled in five months of 1975 alone, and the United States has taken in more than 900,000 Vietnamese refugees overall.
Indeed, the American tradition of welcoming refugees fleeing war and oppression is admirably broad. During the Cold War, for example, the United States welcomed more than 600,000 Russian Jews. During the Bosnian conflict, we accepted more than 150,000 Bosnian refugees. And 10 years ago, the United States helped airlift 2,000 Kurds out of Iraq.
At the same time, the United States is investing too little money and not enough political will to appropriately address the Iraqi refugee issue. For instance, of the $200 billion request in war funding, a mere $250 million is for refugee assistance and bilateral support to the countries who are hosting them. U.S. presidential leadership is also lacking, with President Bush discussing a potential Iraq genocide and humanitarian crisis only in the context of U.S. troop withdrawal.
The return of Iraqis has been touted as a successful byproduct of the surge, yet the confusion that ensued highlights the lack of planning and coordination to deal with the displacement problem. Newspaper articles quoted U.S. military officials and UN spokespersons voicing their frustration with the Iraqi government’s inability to address the issue and asking for guidance.
In the absence of a plan, groups are creating their own ad-hoc arrangements. An informal survey shows five such plans: from the U.S. military; from the U.S. Agency for International Development; from the United Nations; from the Iraqi Red Crescent; and from several Iraqi ministries. Among these plans, it is clear that the protection of Iraqi civilians from the potential rise of renewed sectarian tensions will fall under the purview of the U.S. military. What is less clear is how this component fits into the drawdown plans of the U.S. military.
The recent fanfare surrounding the return of Iraqi refugees from Syria had been touted as refugees voting with their feet—buoyed by the success of the surge and the improved security situation inside the country. But this assessment is not accurate. Other factors include financial incentives such as the cash payments by the Iraqi government of one million dinars, or about $750 to each of the returnees. Then there was Syria’s decision at the request of the Iraqi government in October to essentially close its border to Iraqi refugees, alongside the imposition of a much stricter visa regime and the resulting fear and trepidation within the refugee community.
An initial United Nations High Commission for Refugees survey of 110 returnee families showed that only a minority of refugees were returning because they thought the security situation had improved in Iraq. The survey revealed that 26 percent were leaving because their status had expired, 46 percent were leaving because they did not have authorization to work and they could no longer feed their families, and only 14 percent were leaving as a result of the improved security situation inside the country.
But there are reasons for hope, too. One mitigating factor is that people uprooted in the current crisis have not been displaced for very long. They may still be able to return home if the security situation is resolved in the near future. Unfortunately, this may not be possible for some of the minority populations, such as the Christian minority or the Mandaean-Sabean minorities, both of whom face a precarious future in the new Iraq. But for others, the way the new government of Iraq deals with both the displaced and the returning refugees is a very important indicator of its commitment to a pluralistic and democratic Iraq.
To shed much needed light on this tragic situation, the Center for American Progress and the Heinrich Böll Foundation late last year jointly sponsored a conference, “Iraq’s Displacement Crisis and the International Response,” in an attempt to address this pressing issue, raise awareness, and offer solutions. While the humanitarian crisis in Iraq will only be resolved through diplomatic efforts to achieve a sustainable peaceful settlement to Iraq’s internal conflicts, much work is left undone that could more immediately ameliorate the situation.
Panelists discussed ongoing efforts in the United States, Europe, and the Middle East, and urged better cooperation and information sharing and pressed all to assist the most vulnerable and take full responsibility for the crisis and its response. Specific recommendations from the conference include:
The Government of Iraq
- Work toward a political solution and reconciliation so that peaceful conditions in Iraq prevail, enabling refugees to safely return home
- Encourage the governments of Syria and Jordan to open their borders and allow refugees in as necessary
- Facilitate the return of refugees home only when conditions are safe and do so with protections and guarantees
- Coordinate plans for returns and re-settlement within the ministries, with international agencies and donors and the NGO community
- Allow for access to legal protection and health and education services
- Stop threats of deportation and arrest
- Encourage Iraqi families to register with UNHCR to access services
- Work with the Iraqi government and international community to develop a coordinated return plan
- Allow Iraqi refugees to secure livelihoods
- Create conditions and protections that provide legal protection, access to services, and freedom of movement
The United Nations
- Assume a stronger leadership role in the coordinating of humanitarian assistance and return policies
- Devise creative solutions for resettlement and return in cooperation with the Iraqi government and international resettlement countries
- Encourage a political resolution to the crisis
- Increase humanitarian assistance inside Iraq
- Provide bilateral aid to the neighboring countries, focusing on the increased demands for health, education, and basic services
- Fully fund appeals by the United Nations, international, and non-governmental organizations to assist Iraqi refugees and their host communities, coordinate assistance efforts, and increase the quotas of Iraqis resettled in third countries
- Recognize that the Arab-Israeli conflict and the plight of the displaced Palestinians is a major impediment to peace in the region
- Do not support the involuntary return of Iraqis
The U. S. Government
- The president should immediately recognize the scale and scope of the problem, assign high-level diplomats to the region, and develop a coordinated plan to address the crisis
- Support legislation to increase the amount of humanitarian assistance to Iraq, provide increased bilateral aid to those countries hosting Iraqi refugees, and engage more directly with Syria
- Increase the resettlement numbers of Iraqis, or at the very least meet the stated target of 12,000 in 2008
- Make the process less onerous and cumbersome for Iraqis seeking asylum by allowing for in-country visa processing, less restrictive screening, and provide more financial assistance to those admitted as special immigrant visas
- Begin contingency planning for returns and resettlement in coordination with the Iraqi government and United Nations
EU Member States
- Expand resettlement programs for Iraqis
- Standardize asylum applications
- Increase humanitarian assistance funding and bilateral support in the education and health sectors to countries hosting Iraqi refugees
- Do not force Iraqis to return against their will
- Urge the government of Iraq to create peaceful conditions through reconciliation
- Share information and attempt to coordinate plans with the displaced and communities
- Recognize the acute needs of Iraqi refugee children and women and tailor programming specifically for them
- Urge the government of Iraq and warring parties to find a peaceful solution to the conflict
All of these proposals were worked out amid back-and-forth discussion and debate during our conference at the Center for American Progress on December 6, 2007. On the pages that follow, we summarize the dialogue and highlight the key parts of the program.